Drama Queen conjures bags with exotic pasts

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Respect for the handmade, an obsession with vintage, an urge to recycle, and an innate love of old-fashioned glamour are the pistons that drive Monica Alfreds to create handbags. Girlie, provocative, each an individual, her Drama Queen Designs are the late-show heroines of the purse world, deliciously over the top and dripping with allure. As Alfreds remarks: "If you're going out and you want to get noticed”¦"

      These aren't purses you hide in your closet. Take her Adieux in Blue bag from the Frí¤ulein Maria collection (inspired by the character from The Sound of Music , who made costumes from curtains), whose starting point was a scrap of turquoise and deep lavender 1960s fabric. Alfreds gussied it up with eyelash and fur yarns in the same colours, beaded a turquoise handle, and attached a brooch that serendipitously picks up the two colours.

      Purses are only one creative outlet. "Everything in this house I did," Alfreds says, including the trompe l'oeil rugs on the kitchen and dining-room floors of her North Shore home and the "gem"-topped table on the deck. Her living room, done in warm reds and dappled sage green, with stained-glass windows and a coffered ceiling, doubles as a studio.

      "I'm not a handbag designer and I don't work in fashion. I'm an artist. That's the difference," says Alfreds, who previously worked in traditional animation for, among others, DreamWorks and Disney, and started her own business in 2004. She finds it's a career that sits happily with being a single mom of two. With no start-up capital, she initially had to mine her existing stash of fabrics and finds for materials. These days, she tracks them down at thrift stores, on eBay, and through collectors. "It's not even eco-chic," she says. "It's eco-luxe."

      These are bags with an exotic past. Silk and velvet flowers from the 1930s, in wistful shades of blue and silver, are attached to a recycled bridal bag to make Something Blue. Morning Glory accents the black flap of a black-olive-gold brocade purse with a brass art nouveau buckle. It's authentic, and so is the 1920s beaded net laid over blue silk and trimmed with a marcasite fastening in Midnight Adventure.

      Alfreds remarks that she can't design here in Vancouver and have her line made more cheaply offshore the way some designers do, and "to do anything by hand is expensive. It's hard to keep the price point affordable and make money." (Her prices range from $100 to $500; in London or New York, you'd easily pay double for handwork this meticulous.)

      Submerged in turquoise feathers and adorned with peacock-feather pendants, her Cleopatra bag is a much-requested style. Then there's her collection of granny bags covered with images from the '20s through the '60s. Tired of Me Too is plasticized to protect it, with black lace framing a picture of a sweet young thing together with the words Tired of Me, taken from old sheet music. A "full on" wedding bag is covered in crimson roses, its handle wound round with a little garland of leaves and rose hips to make This Is Love. "Custom orders are my favourite," she says. Often designed for wedding parties, they might be bags that stick to the colour theme but reflect each bridesmaid's personality, or have meaningful quotes inscribed on the lining.

      Her Retro Romance and Jukebox series recycle old graphics and objects. Sweethearts has a 45-rpm recording of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" attached to one side of a red-painted bag made of wood and a 1950s couple on the other. The exterior of Hey Little Lady is green, features a romantic twosome with appropriate text, and has a green-bandanna-and-fur-lined interior. Insides have mirrors, pockets, wording, even a cigarette case.

      "There's so many ideas, it drives me crazy," says Alfreds, who is currently mulling over purses that will incorporate her collection of miniature birds and mermaids. She's also exploring the possibilities of felt; in the works is a bag inspired by a matryoshka nesting doll.

      Alfreds sells through her Web site ( www.dramaqueendesigns.com ), and some of her handbags also hang out at Lisette (2308 West Broadway) and Ella's (4070 200th Street, Langley), but mostly her purses find owners by word of mouth, at salon shows, or by appointment in her studio. As of September 30, she'll have a stall at Portobello West too. Why would anyone carry a faux Louis Vuitton bag, Alfreds asks. "If you're going to spend that much money on a knockoff," she says, "why not get something unique and local?"